The Paradox of on demand exams


But which one is best when there is so much choice?

It is more blessed to give than receive, so it says in the bible, and Christmas is a time when you get to do this in abundance. What better feeling can there be when you find exactly the right present for that special person. You can even imagine the smile on their face when on Christmas day they rip open the paper to reveal the gift they either never new they wanted but did, or in their wildest dreams believed they could have or own.paradox-wonderful-christmas-time-1

BUT…….its not as easy as it used to be. Deciding on what you want to buy is one thing, finding the “best” or most suitable gift is another.

Paradox of choice

Although Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote his book called The Paradox of Choice over 12 years ago, most if not all of what he said is more relevant today with the explosion of choice created by the internet and advances in technology. He argued that choice rather than being good, and by the way the basis for freedom, was not necessarily bad, but did not always result in the best decisions being made or to be precise, the feeling that the best decisions had been made.

There were two reasons for this, firstly, too much choice creates paralysis, a delay in the decision-making process (see also Buridan’s ass) that can result in no decision being made at all, and secondly if you do decide, ultimately you will become less satisfied with your choice for a variety of reasons e.g. regret, opportunity cost and the escalation of expectation.

But what has this all got to do with examinations?

On demand exams result in their own paradox

In the world of professional examinations for many years’ students and employers have been asking for more choice as to when the exam can be sat. Its only tradition and inflexible systems that have created a need for testing to take place at specific times of the year. But with technology comes flexibility and that flexibility now means that some examinations can be sat when you want, not when the professional body or university decides. Driving tests have long followed the concept of, “on-demand” testing.

This choice is however resulting in a paradox. Students are taking longer to pass their exams but despite having more time results are not improving. You would expect that having additional time to study would improve exam success not reduce it.

One of the reasons for taking longer to pass is because it is now within the student’s power to change the exam date if they so wish. There are a number of good reasons for doing this, for example, work pressure, not feeling ready for the exam or that you dont know enough. Logical reasons but are they “good” reasons?

That all depends of course on the objective, but if the objective is to pass the exam quickly, then the answer is no.

The best of both worlds

Schwartz never concluded that having a choice was bad, just that it was not the end game. Ultimate choice is not the objective. He did say that we should perhaps stop thinking in terms of maximising choice but set some standards that can be used to help navigate the choices available.  In fact, this is borne out by some initial research into this area which shows that students increase their chances of passing if they set an exam date, (the choice) enable sufficient time to study but don’t change the exam date later (the standard). The choice when to pass can be set but neither the length of study nor the exam date should change.


Consult an expert – What do people do when they are faced with such a wide range of options they cannot decide, how about asking an expert? In this instance the expert would be the educational establishment or the examining body, what do they recommend?

Follow the norm – Data is now more readily available than ever before, many technologies make use of historical trends to make predictions or to offer advice when there are lots of choices. Everyone will be familiar with the web sites that suggest books or other items you should buy based on past behaviours. What worked best for you in the past, what did you do before that was successful or what do the most successful people do?

Now that we have cleared up how to make better decisions in a world of endless choices – I need to begin thinking about my New Year’s resolutions, oh dear if only there were not so many choices.

Happy new Year to you all

Click to watch Barry Schwartz TED lecture.